Sheriff Granger knelt and studied the body in the alley behind the Dusty Diamond saloon. Even in the fading early evening light, he could tell there was no hope of life. The man's right forehead sported a deep gash, no doubt caused by the bloody rock laying in the dirt. He seemed to be in his late twenties, dressed in Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.
"This one's new to me," Granger said. "Haven't seen him around."
"Maybe you should spend more time in the saloon," Ramona Hammond smirked. She toyed with her blonde ringlets and swayed in the doorway, flouncing her frilly red barmaid's dress. "You work too hard, Sheriff."
"Be serious, Ramona. A man's dead here," said Nickerson, the saloon owner.
"I am serious. What's a girl got to do to interest a real man in this town?"
"How about doing your job? Get back in there and make sure things stay calm. That way the sheriff will be able to do his job."
Ramona swirled around to face the door. Nestling her chin over her shoulder, she smiled at Granger and said, "Guess I better do what the boss says, Sheriff. But don't forget you're always welcome at the Diamond . . . and other places, too." Then she pranced into the saloon.
"He must be in town for that cattleman's meeting, Sheriff. They're the only ones I've seen so well dressed in the middle of the week. I was in my office when one hell of a commotion started in the bar. This fellow and Jeremy Brock were going at each other."
"Jeremy from the Kirkland ranch? Doesn't seem the kind to get into a fight."
"Definitely didn't have much practice, it seems," Nickerson replied, hitching his pants up over his bulging stomach. "He was getting the worse end of it by far." He stepped closer to the body. "Jeremy crashed through a couple of my chairs and that was that."
Granger raised his hand and halted the man. "Not too close, Nick. Let me finish here."
"How long do you think you'll be, Evan? The longer I keep the Diamond shut down, the more money just keeps flying away."
The sheriff stood and took a last look at the alleyway, then turned to Nickerson.
"It'll take as long as it takes," he said. "Like you told the young lady, a man's dead here." He stepped closer and asked, "What happened after the fight?"
Nickerson shook his bald head and stroked the edges of his bushy mustache as he answered. "That's hard to say. This fellow here took off through the back and, while I was trying to calm the place down, Jeremy pulled himself up and chased after him. When I finally got out here, he was standing over the man, bent double like he was out of breath."
"So you didn't see the death blow."
"Nope. But Jeremy confessed to me right then and there."
"What exactly did he say?"
"Something like 'It was me. I killed him. Get the sheriff.' Then he went to his knees and hung his head. He was so worn out from the fight and whatever happened out here, I had to help him back into the saloon before I sent word to you."
"Well, you need to send word to the undertaker now and I need to go have words with our confessed killer."
When they entered the bar area all noise stopped. The only people in there were saloon workers scattered around and a bruised and battered Jeremy alone at a table. His posture was so rigid even his black curly hair seemed at attention. However, the crowd that had gathered outside the batwing doors was barely being held back by a couple of bartenders.
"Tell them to shut the main doors," Granger said.
"Evan!" Nickerson complained. "Please let me open back up. Why don't you take Jeremy on to the calaboose?"
Granger turned to the man and hooked his thumbs into his belt. "You gonna waste more time bellyaching or let me get this over with?"
Struggling to hold back any further grumbles, Nickerson motioned to his staff to comply, setting off shouts of dismay from those beyond. Then he stormed off behind the bar.
"Nick's right, Sheriff," Jeremy said as he stood up from the table. "No need to delay. I bashed his head in with a rock."
"You saw'im. Out in the alley."
Granger moved closer and leaned over with his hands resting on the back of one of the chairs, eyes locked on the young cowhand. "What's his name? What caused the ruckus between you two?"
Jeremy's face contorted and he couldn't match the sheriff's gaze. He dropped his head and mumbled as he sat back down, "I don't know his name. He was . . . he was just . . . causing trouble and somebody had to stop him."
"Anybody else know the man?" Granger addressed the saloon's employees, walking toward the group. "Anyone else have problems with him?"
Murmurs and shuffling about spread through them but no one seemed willing to comment. Finally, Ramona, who was standing at the bar, teased, "Guess not everyone is as memorable as you, sheriff."
"His name was Caleb Phelps," said a soft feminine voice filled with teardrops.
The saloon workers pulled back to allow the speaker through. A petite woman stepped toward Granger. She was slim and small boned, the canary yellow dance hall dress nearly swallowing her up. She had matching yellow ribbons in her light brown hair, and a red welt that was turning dark purple around her left eye.
"Annabel, don't do this," Ramona said. "Jeremy's already confessed. No need to bring up all the trouble now."
"Trouble?" Granger asked. "What trouble?"
"He's . . . he was my husband," the small woman continued. "I'm the reason Jeremy and Caleb were fighting."
Granger pulled out a chair at the table and watched her as she sat next to Jeremy. She caressed one of the man's scarred hands gently. "I'm so sorry I got you into all this."
"I'm the one who's sorry you had to put up with abuse for so long." Then, staring intently into her eyes he said, "You don't have to worry about him anymore. You understand?"
Annabel pulled her hand back and cast her gaze downward as she nodded her head. Then she turned to the sheriff.
"I've run away from him before," she said. "But he always tracked me down and dragged me back. I thought this time if I went to a town without family or friends or any kind of ties I would be safe. The annual cattleman's meeting never crossed my mind. Then he comes in here today and nearly explodes when he sees me."
"I take it that's where the black eye came from?"
"Not the first one he's given me. He considered me no better than the cattle he ran, just another piece of property."
"I couldn't let him get away with that, Sheriff," Jeremy said. "I stepped in and we started beating on each other."
"But he left you lying on the floor," Granger said.
"Yeah, I've always tried to avoid fistfights. Don't want to mess up my hands for cowboying. Guess I shoulda fought enough to get decent at it."
"Satisfied, Sheriff?" Nickerson interrupted. "How about you take him on to the jail and let me get back to business?"
Granger moved to the bar and leaned against it. "Not just yet," he said. "There are still a few things that need clearing up."
"I do like a man who takes care of details," Ramona said, brushing by the sheriff as she went to sit at the table with Jeremy and Annabel.
"Evan, please . . . I mean Sheriff," Nickerson whined. "What are you talking about?"
"Yes, Sheriff," Ramona added. "You know how things started, and, for about the twentieth time you've been told today, Jeremy admitted doing it. Of course, I personally think he should get a medal instead of a lockup. What more needs explaining?"
"I appreciate all of you trying to my job for me," Granger said. "But please bear with me as I stumble through this. There should be no doubt left when we finish."
"Okay, handsome. I mean, Sheriff," Ramona said with a wink, "What can we do to ease your mind?"
"The fight is over, and Jeremy is on the floor. Mrs. Phelps, did—
"Annabel, please," she said.
"Annabel. Did you stay in the bar, or when and where did you go?"
"I was so afraid and embarrassed. I ran as soon as it started. Straight to the back."
"Into the alley?"
"No, but that's where I was headed. I wanted to grab the first horse I found and get as far away as I could."
"What stopped you?"
"I stopped her," Ramona said. "She wouldn't have had a chance with that man after her. I sent her up to the guest rooms to hide."
"So, Annabel," Granger said. "You never went into the alley?"
"That's what she said, Sheriff," Nickerson huffed. "Where you going with this?"
"Trying to eliminate possibilities. And decide who's telling the truth and who isn't."
"I'm not lying! And neither is Annabel." Jeremy stood up abruptly, his chair crashing to the floor. "Take me in. I'm ready to go." He started toward the door.
"I really admire you," Granger said calmly. "Ready to sacrifice yourself to save another."
Jeremy stopped, still with his back to them.
"Trouble is, young man, you're mistaken."
The cowhand wheeled around and looked immediately at Annabel, then to the sheriff. "What are you talking about?" he asked.
"First I need to ask Annabel a question." Granger walked over to her and reached out for her hands. Cradling them in his own, he asked, "When you and Caleb had your confrontation today, there's no doubt he struck you. Did you get a chance to hit him back?"
Just as Annabel shook her head and started to answer, Jeremy cut her off. "Of course she didn't," he said. "That fool knocked her halfway across the room. I jumped in on him before anything else could happen."
"That's what her hands say," the sheriff agreed, letting them drop to her lap. "No scarring, no blood, no skin under the nails."
"What's that got to do with anything?" Nickerson asked. He leaned over the bar, his interest caught in the story.
"Jeremy knows, don't you?" Granger asked. "When you finally got into the alley, Phelps was already dead wasn't he?" When there was no response other than the cowhand's concerned expression, he continued. "Even with all the blood on his face, you could still see the fingernail scratches couldn't you? You were certain that Annabel had killed him."
"I didn't kill Caleb!" Annabel wailed.
"You didn't?" Jeremy asked in surprise.
"Of course not!" Annabel got up, wrapped her arms around him and hugged with all her might despite his wincing from aching ribs. "But thank you, thank you so much for trying to take care of me."
"Did you say fingernail scratches?" Nickerson asked. "That means . . . a woman?
Granger walked toward the table which was empty now except for one person. "You haven't said much in quite a while, Ramona. I'd check your hands but I can see you've had time to clean them. One of your nails is a bit ragged though. Not from scratching a face, but maybe from slamming a rock against it?"
She turned away, her eyes darting around the room as the sheriff continued.
"Is that why you've been flirting with me all this time? Trying to distract me? To keep me from putting things together? I admit, you've got your charms and I've been mighty tempted . . . but a man is dead here. What do you have to say about that?"
"So I've got a torn fingernail. It doesn't mean anything. Why don't you check every other woman's hands?"
"No need to. There's another thing." He knelt in front of her. "There were tracks, female shoe tracks, leading away from the body, down the alley and around to the front. When I looked at Annabel's feet they were a bit too small to have made them. And yours . . . well, Ramona, if we took one of your shoes and set them next to those footprints . . . "
"He was nothing but trash!" She leaned over the table on her elbows, rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands. "All he had to do was leave and nothing . . . none of this . . . "
Granger stood and said, "You sent him into the alley, didn't you? Told him Annabel had run that way."
"Yes. I closed the door behind us and stood in between. Said he wasn't welcome here anymore. Said he'd have to go through me to get inside."
"What did he say to that?"
Ramona looked at the sheriff, her tear-streaked face knotted in anger. "He said 'My, you're a feisty one'," she mimicked through gritted teeth. "Then he said 'Maybe I'll just settle for you.' He reached out and tried to grab me."
"I bet that's when he got the scratches on his face."
"Damn right it is. He shoved me to the ground so hard I lost my breath. He spun around for a minute, holding his head, calling me all sorts of names while I got to my feet."
"With a rock in your hand."
"With a rock in my hand," Ramona nodded. "I knew what he would do."
"He came at you."
"He pulled his hand down from his face and I saw nothing but fury in those bloody eyes. I didn't mean to kill him, I swear I didn't. But I couldn't let him get hold of me."
Granger studied her for a bit. He'd seen plenty of false regret and put-on tears in his life. Ramona, however, had all indication of truth and sincerity. He turned to the bar and said, "Okay, Nick. I think that's it. The Dusty Diamond can open for business."
"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you," Nickerson almost danced with joy as he waved at the barmen to open the doors.
"What about me?" Ramona asked, standing and straightening her dress. "Am I going to jail?"
"Only if you want to watch me make out my report for the circuit court," the sheriff said. "It'll probably say something like: Since the victim had already beaten one woman and pounded another citizen violently, my investigation can only conclude that Miss Hammond feared for her life and acted in self-defense."
Ramona's hand went to her chest and she staggered a bit. Annabel and Jeremy steadied her as she continued to stare at the lawman in disbelief.
Granger started through the throng of thirsty customers but stopped and turned back to the trio. "There's only one thing that doesn't square up with me," he said. "You were very willing to let someone else take the blame for your actions. Jeremy seems to have forgiven you. But there oughta be a price to pay." He squinted hard and thought for a moment. "I've got it."
Striding toward the batwing doors, he shouted to the incoming crowd, "Next round's on Ramona!"